The miniaturist, p.25
The Miniaturist, p.25Jessie Burton
He pauses, putting Rezeki back in his pocket. ‘This cell shall now be the compass of my waking life,’ he says, spanning his arms out like a crooked windmill. ‘There are horizons through the brickwork, Nella. You wait and see.’
Nella leaves him then, no longer able to bear that little room. The moss and the mice, the sounds of men screeching like birds; Johannes is locked in an aviary, her great owl surrounded by crows. Nella stumbles out into the winter sunshine, and only then does she cry – fierce, quiet tears, as she presses against the city’s wall.
As she pushes open the front door, the desire to tell Marin about the state of the sugar and Johannes’ condition dies in Nella’s throat.
In the middle of the hallway, rocking on its tin runners, is a full-sized cradle. Made of oak, it has been inlaid with marquetry of roses and daisies, honeysuckle and cornflowers. It has a hood, lined with velvet and fringed with lace. Beautiful and shocking, it is an exact replica of the cradle upstairs in the cabinet.
Still shaken from her visit to Johannes, Nella shuts the door. What she had first taken for a mock, a cradle sent to a woman whose marriage was a farce, has become a reality. Cornelia scurries up from the kitchen.
‘What is this?’ Nella says. ‘Do you think it came from—’
‘No,’ Cornelia says sharply. ‘Madame Marin ordered it. It arrived in a crate from Leiden.’
Nella touches the main body of the wood. It seems to sing under her fingers, the marquetry so finely tuned. ‘It’s the same as she sent me.’
‘I know,’ Cornelia replies. ‘Your somebody.’
Marin emerges from the salon. Up close, she now seems to have the girth of an oak. ‘The craftsmanship is extraordinary,’ she observes. ‘It is just as I imagined.’
‘How much did this cost to make, to transport it here?’ Nella imagines Johannes’ shrinking cloud of money finally evaporating into the air. ‘Marin, if any of our neighbours saw this arrive, what on earth would they think?’
‘Exactly the same as you.’
‘Don’t think I haven’t noticed your mind whirring.’ Marin moves heavily towards her. ‘You want to take my child for yourself.’
How does Marin understand people’s thoughts quicker than anyone else? I could bluff, Nella thinks, but what’s the point? I was the one who said there must be no more secrets between us.
‘Marin, I don’t want to take your child—’
‘But you suppose he’d be convenient,’ Marin persists, covering her stomach with her hands as if Nella would wrench it there and then. ‘The last sacrifice? Giving up my baby for my brother – for you.’
‘Johannes is in the Stadhuis prison, Marin. And if we did pretend for a while that the child is mine, would that really be so awful? We could prove Johannes has the same desires – as other men. Don’t you want him to live?’
‘You really cannot see.’
‘See what? I see more than you.’
‘Petronella, this child will be far from convenient. You can believe that.’
‘I know that, Marin, I know. And while I’m trying to save us, you’re spending money we simply do not have.’
The slap comes from nowhere, stinging Nella’s face.
‘I marvel how he could ever love you,’ Nella says. Hot and cruel, the words rush out before she can stop them.
‘He did,’ Marin says. ‘He does.’
‘We will have to hire a midwife,’ Nella says quietly. ‘I cannot bear the weight of this birth alone.’
Marin snorts. ‘You won’t be bearing any weight at all.’
‘Stop, stop,’ Cornelia pleads.
‘Marin, it’s the law—’
‘No. Absolutely not.’ Marin roughly pushes the end of the cradle; it rocks back and forth, its emptiness strangely antagonizing. ‘Do you know what else is the law, Petronella?’ Her cheeks are flushed, her hair has loosened from her cap. ‘A midwife has to write down the identity of the father. And if we don’t tell her, she’ll report our silence too.’ She stops the cradle, breathing heavily. ‘So like everything else, I will be dealing with this alone.’
Marin places her hand on her stomach, but this time she flinches, as if she’s touched a burning coal.
In the afternoon, Nella wanders slowly through the corridors. The quiet rooms make her feel as if there is no one in the house but her. The key to the warehouse still hangs round her neck, warmed by her skin, worth more to her than any silver necklace Johannes would have commissioned.
With a rope, Cornelia lugs the cradle up to Marin’s little cell. It waits expectantly, taking up most of the free space amongst the skulls and maps and feathers. The maid’s attitude towards Marin’s secret has been a rapid metamorphosis; now the baby is a marvel, a crucible in which all their problems will burn. Cornelia breathes his invisible presence, gulping it like fresh air whenever she can. She has started cleaning again, opening windows despite her hatred of the cold; beeswax on bedposts, floorboards and cupboards and windowsills, lavender oil burners, vinegar on the glass, lemon juice flicked on fresh sheets. Still, Nella supposes, it is better than her gloom.
In the back room on the ground floor, away from prying eyes on the canal path, Nella can hear Marin and Cornelia setting up a game of verkeerspel. She thinks of the little coriander-seed counters upstairs, the miniaturist’s exquisitely made wooden box, turning up like a miracle of chance. She has almost given up hoping that she will hear from Lucas Windelbreke in Bruges, a hundred and fifty miles away, on icy roads. My letter probably got lost, she thinks, creeping up to the door to spy on Marin and Cornelia.
‘My whale body,’ Marin sighs.
‘Your little Jonah,’ smiles the maid. Nella still feels bruised from their morning encounter. Marin is not dealing with everything alone, she thinks. Who went to the warehouse, the Stadhuis? But they haven’t time to fight this out. Time is the latest luxury to be in short supply.
What would Agnes say if she saw Marin now? Surely Frans Meermans had thought of this eventuality. All those times spent with Marin, hidden from his wife’s darting eyes. Didn’t either of them worry how Nature might take her course?
‘He’s kicking me,’ Marin says to Cornelia, looking down at her body. ‘When I stand in front of the looking glass sometimes I see within myself the imprint of a tiny foot. I’ve not seen such a thing before.’
Nella has – when her unborn younger siblings punched at the lining of their mother’s womb. But she will not say this, for Marin in her wonderment is rather wonderful.
‘I should like to see that,’ she says instead, entering the room.
‘If he does it again, I’ll let you know,’ Marin says. ‘Sometimes, it’s his hand. It looks like a kitten paw.’
‘Do you think it’s a boy?’ Nella asks.
‘I believe so,’ replies Marin, giving the bulge of her body a peremptory tap. Her fingers hover, as if they want to caress it. ‘I have been reading,’ she says, pointing to Blankaart’s Children’s Diseases resting on a table.
Cornelia bobs a curtsey and makes her exit. ‘It must be time soon,’ Nella says.
‘We’ll need hot water, cloths, a stick for me to hold my teeth upon,’ Marin replies.
Nella feels only pity. She remembers what Cornelia told of Marin’s mother. She barely survived after Madame Marin was born. Has Marin any idea of the blood that is to come, the rebellion of the body, the noises and hot fear? Marin seems determined to exert her formidable will on this baby, as if, like the hermetic creature inside her, she is unaffected by the world’s external tricks, as if she is immune to suffering.
‘I thought we could play a game,’ Marin says, lining up the verkeerspel counters like coins. ‘You go first.’
Nella takes this as a peace offering, and plays her first counter on the verkeerspel board. Marin assesses her move, contemplating the sole disc, shaking the dice like two teeth in the hollow of her fist. She worries her black token, unsure of where to place it.
‘Marin,’ Nella says. ‘You haven’t asked about the warehouse.’
Marin continues to stare at the board. Against her will, Nella feels her patience slipping away. ‘And you haven’t asked me about Johannes.’
Marin looks up. ‘What?’
‘They’re going – to – put him on the rack—’
‘Stop,’ Marin utters.
‘If we don’t—’
‘Why must you torture me? You know I cannot go and see him!’
‘But I need your help. Two respectable witnesses, Marin. Frans and Agnes. Think what that means.’
Marin becomes very still. ‘I knew what it meant the moment Frans came to our door.’
‘Then speak to Frans, Marin. Tell him about his child.’
Marin lays the dice down very carefully upon the verkeerspel board. She looks winded, furrowing her eyebrows, twisting her mouth smaller. ‘You make such a conversation sound easy,’ she says. ‘You know nothing of what you speak.’
‘I know more than you think.’ Nella stops herself, trying to collect her bad temper and shove it away up her sleeve. ‘Meermans is a man,’ she adds more gently. ‘He can do something.’
‘Trust me, he can do very little.’
‘He has no heir, Marin—’
‘What? Are you now proposing I barter my child? How do you think Agnes would greet such a piece of news?’ Marin stands abruptly and begins to pace the small room. ‘It would give her even more reason to bury us. You are always meddling—’
‘It isn’t meddling. It’s survival.’
‘You know nothing of survival—’
‘I know what happened, Marin,’ Nella blurts. ‘Cornelia told me.’
‘I know you and Frans were in love, and Johannes stopped your marriage.’
Marin puts her hand against the wall to steady herself and curves her other arm underneath her unborn child. ‘What?’ Her voice is extraordinary, a ferocious hiss.
‘I know Frans married Agnes to spite you – how even Agnes knows that’s true. I’ve seen the way Frans looks at you – I know about the salted piglet, the love note in your book. You keep telling me I don’t see, but I do.’
‘The salted piglet,’ echoes Marin. She pauses, as if looking on some long-submerged memory reappearing into her mind. ‘And Cornelia dared to tell you this?’
Nella glances at the door. ‘Don’t be angry with her. I made her tell, I had to know. It was important.’
Marin says nothing for a moment. She exhales heavily, and lowers herself into her chair. ‘Frans loves his wife,’ she says. When Nella starts to protest, she holds up her hand. ‘You don’t know what love looks like, Petronella. Twelve years together should never be underestimated.’
‘And the rest of it is a good story, patched together from listening at doors. It’s more elaborate than I could have made up myself. I should have given Cornelia more chores.’
‘It’s not a story—’
‘I come out of it well, don’t I? My brother less so. However, the truth is somewhat different.’ Nella notices how Marin’s hands are shaking. ‘Johannes did refuse Frans Meermans’ proposal,’ Marin says, her voice now heavy.
‘I knew it—’
‘Because that was what I wanted.’
Nella stares at the pieces of the verkeerspel board. They slide before her eyes. What she’s hearing doesn’t make sense. Marin’s revelation spikes her, her certainty now misplaced.
‘I did love Frans,’ Marin says, her statement stiff. ‘When I was thirteen years old. But I never wanted to marry him.’
Though she looks ineffably sad, another emotion rises up like a pale sun through Marin’s face. It is, she senses, the bittersweet relief of confession.
And yet, Nella still cannot understand. The scenery and actors are familiar, but in roles they’re not supposed to play. I did something to make Frans Meermans very unhappy, Johannes said in his Stadhuis cell. Why did he say nothing to Nella then – why has he never expiated himself – what is this cord of loyalty tying Marin and him together, a rope so slippery that Nella has no hope to grasp?
‘By the time I was sixteen, I didn’t want to give up who I was and what I had,’ Marin says quietly. ‘I had a household already. When Johannes was away, I was the head.’
Her tears are coming now, welling up in her grey eyes. She opens her arms wide like wings, a familiar gesture, indicating the room in which they sit. ‘No woman had that, unless she was a widow. Then came Cornelia and Otto. “The bars on our cage are of our own making,” Johannes said. He promised I could be free. For such a long time, I believed him. I truly thought I was.’ Her hands fly towards her stomach.
‘Marin, you’re carrying Meermans’ child—’
‘And whatever his imperfections, my brother has always let me be. Alas, he cannot say the same of me.’
Marin presses her fingers under her eyes as if to do so will stop the tears. It is a futile gesture, for down they come, even as she starts to sob. ‘I have taken things from Johannes that were not mine to take,’ she says.
‘Marin, what do you mean?’
But Marin is struggling for her words. She draws her slender hands down her face, taking a long breath. ‘When Frans proposed, I didn’t know how to say no. It was not a situation I had prepared for. I thought it better for him to hear I was forbidden, rather than discovering this . . . reluctance I felt. So I asked my brother to take the blame.’ Her eyes are wild with distress. ‘And he did it. Johannes lied, for me. I was young – we all were! I never thought it would twist—’ Marin puts her hand to her mouth, unable to stop her cry. ‘All friendship gone’ she says. ‘All understanding. Because I couldn’t tolerate being a wife.’
The Hopeful Loaf
Outside her husband’s warehouse, Nella waits for Hanna and Arnoud Maakvrede, Johannes’ key around her neck. Her mind rings with this new truth of Marin and Johannes; their understanding made of light as much as shadow. Love a beam of sun which sometimes clouds the heart. It seems that Marin viewed marriage as a ceding of something, whereas so many women – including my own mother, Nella realizes – see it as the only possible form of influence a woman may have. Marriage is supposed to harness love, to increase a woman’s power, Nella supposes. But does it? Marin believed herself to be more powerful without it. Love has been left unharnessed, and indeed extraordinary things have happened. A child, a prison cell, yes – but also choice and the moulding of one’s own fate.
After the revelation about her past, Marin had wanted some distraction, some occupation – she had practically demanded it – and Nella had taken her chance. You weren’t callous, she tells herself, leaning up against the warehouse wall; it was absolute necessity. So, as Nella sat at the small table in the back room, away from the prying eyes of the canal, Marin had written a letter to Arnoud Maakvrede in Johannes’ hand. She had agreed with Nella’s new idea, inviting Maakvrede to taste the sugar with a proposition to sell it solely in the republic; a quicker sale to a ready audience. My marriage has afforded me a little influence at least, Nella thought wryly.
Marin’s voice plays through Nella’s head. ‘The profit-bar is ours to set. There are fifteen hundred cones, which I estimate, if we do well, could make thirty thousand guilders. Start higher than it will sell. Remember that if they want to purchase, we’ll be cutting the profit three ways now, and the bulk of the money still needs to go to Frans.’
‘But what if Arnoud has heard about Johannes – what if he won’t buy?’
‘It’s the guilder over godliness. All we can do is pray that Arnoud Maakvrede’s an Amsterdammer before he’s an angel.’
‘He might know we want to sell the stock quickly. He might see the rot.’
‘Hold your ground, Nella. Price it up, and make it seem that you’re discounting it because of the spores.’
Nella could not help admiring how Marin drew up the bridge of her sadness when it really was important, how she
Across the abandoned verkeerspel board, Marin’s hand reached out for hers and squeezed it, and in her astonishment, Nella thought her heart might burst.
Nella sees the confectioner couple approach in the cold light. She wonders if someone has told them what’s happened at the Stadhuis, but the scandal of a wealthy merchant’s arrest does not yet seem to have penetrated the city streets. Cornelia has reported nothing along the canal path – perhaps Aalbers, in his decency, has managed to keep the Stadhuis prison guards silent? But it will only be a matter of time before everyone knows what’s happened to Johannes Brandt. A strutting nine-year-old brat like Christoffel cannot be bridled as easily as a prison guard with mouths to feed. The surface of Amsterdam thrives on these mutual acts of surveillance, the neighbourly smothering of a person’s spirit.
Outside, in the shadow of the warehouse, Arnoud looks less inflamed, his apron replaced by a neat black suit and hat. He seems a different presence to the one battering his honeycomb trays. It’s as if the air has shrunk him.
‘Seigneur, Madame,’ Nella says, as she turns the key in the lock. ‘New Year greetings. Thank you both for coming.’
‘In your husband’s letter, he made no mention we would be meeting you,’ Arnoud says, unable to conceal his surprise at seeing Nella here alone.
‘Indeed, Seigneur,’ Nella replies, feeling Hanna’s shrewd eye upon her. ‘My husband is away.’
‘And Marin Brandt?’
‘Visiting family, Seigneur.’
‘I see.’ Arnoud is visibly perturbed by Nella’s youth and sex, as if she is a trick, a play-act – but just you wait, she thinks, clenching her fists in the cuffs of her coat.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes